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by Mary Shen Barnidge

Playwright: Jaki McCarrick. At: Artemisia, A Chicago Theatre at the Den, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets: 832-819-4336; Article Link Here ; $25. Runs through: June 14

The Orphan Emigration Scheme probably seemed a good idea when Earl Grey first hatched it in 1848: The predominantly male British colonies in Australia wanted the stabilizing influence of females, so young orphanage-raised women of good character and useful domestic skills were awarded ship's passage, along with room and board, to the land "down under." What could go wrong?

First, Australia was a penal colony, where long-term criminals who would otherwise have festered in the overcrowded home-counties correctional facilities were exiled to serve out their sentences laboring in the wilderness. Second, Ireland was suffering a crop failure so severe that a major segment of its populace died of starvation. Families who could afford to escape fled for foreign countries—the United States, among them—but women with no money or kin took advantage of Grey's recruitment, telling whatever lies were necessary to sign on as "orphans."

This is how tough Judith, romantic Hannah, quiet Ellen, straightlaced Sarah and bluestocking Molly come to be bunking together aboard the Inchinnan, bound for Sydney, in 1850. Whatever honest employment they may have once pursued has been eclipsed by the brutal streets of urban Belfast or the likewise brutal famines of rural Sligo. Over their three months at sea, dynamics associated with strangers confined to restricted quarters arise—individual squabbles, territorial alliances, even a lynching no less horrifying for being non-fatal. Secrets from the past are revealed, as well as discoveries hinting at improved chances for survival in a future as uncertain as that left behind, but nevertheless offering a wider range of opportunities for those adventurous enough to seize them.

Jaki McCarrick's historical drama could easily veer too much toward dryly didactic social polemics ( Molly's books include Karl Marx' recently-published Communist Manifesto ) or swing too far in the opposite direction to wallow in sensationalistic women-in-prison clichés. Artemisia director Julie Proudfoot recognizes the responsibilities that come with hosting a U.S. premiere production, however, as does the five-member ensemble selected for the occasion, maintaining an articulate focal balance enhanced by Lindsay Tornquist's impeccable dialects throughout the two hours ( with one intermission ) of this bare-bones staging.

Artemisia's introduction of this award-and-accolade-winning play to audiences on this side of the Atlantic might be a humble one, but the strength of McCarrick's themes point to the likelihood of its becoming a popular addition to the regional circuit. Why wait until that comes to pass, though, when you can see it now?

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